Fish farmer holds PPL Corp. responsible for $900,000 loss
Since the 1970s, a fish farm and a power plant have coexisted on Brunner Island in the Susquehanna River. The symbiotic relationship spoiled, however, following a fire at the towering plant in March 2001.
Brent Blauch, president of Susquehanna Aquacultures Inc., blames PPL Corp. for a fire-related power outage that killed more than 130,000 of his fish and caused nearly $900,000 in losses, according to a lawsuit Blauch filed in the York County Court of Common Pleas.
PPL operates the Brunner Island plant in East Manchester Township, York County. The Allentown-based company has denied liability for Blauch’s losses, arguing that the farmer is at fault.
The ongoing dispute centers on clashing interpretations of a 20-year lease signed in 1989 between PPL and Blauch, 50. The two parties also disagree over the power company’s response to the fire and its disastrous effect on Blauch’s farm. PPL argued that Blauch should have had a backup power system and that his farm was overpopulated. Blauch said he was forbidden from touching the electrical wiring on his farm.
A trial date has not been set.
PPL started the fish farm in the 1970s to prove that water it took from the Susquehanna River, and used in the plant, was safe enough to pump back into the river. Built in the 1960s, the plant burns coal and can produce nearly 1,500 megawatts of power, which is enough electricity for more than 1.3 million homes.
In 1989, the company leased the farm to Blauch and a partner. Blauch bought out his partner after nearly going bankrupt in 1993. The two purchased a bad batch of fingerlings, as baby fish are called. Half the fish died before growing to a marketable size of about 1.5 pounds.
Today, Blauch raises hybrid striped bass for Asian supermarkets and Chinese restaurants in big cities, such as New York, Philadelphia and Toronto. The fish sell for between $3.50 and $4 per pound.
Susquehanna Aquacultures has annual revenue of about $800,000 a year and employs eight people, including a resident manager who lives in a mobile home overlooking the fenced-in farm. The bass grow in 200-foot-long concrete canals and round tanks filled with a mix of river water and warm discharge water from the plant. The warm water keeps Susquehanna Aquacultures going year-round.
“The good times can be great,” said Blauch, dressed in a red polo shirt, blue shorts and black sneakers. “The bad times are absolutely horrible.”
Located between the Susquehanna River and the power plant, the farm has suffered through floods, as well as droughts. Thousands of fish also have died from occasional employee negligence, Blauch said.
In the current legal contest, no one questions that Unit 3 at the Brunner Island plant caught fire March 24, 2001. Nor does anyone dispute that Blauch’s farm lost power, shutting down systems that pumped oxygen-laden water into the fish tanks, known as “races.”
Blauch and PPL disagree, however, on the company’s responsibility for maintaining an unbroken power supply to the farm. The fire started when hydraulic oil leaked onto hot steam pipes, shutting down Unit 3, which provided power to the farm.
In court documents, Blauch argued that his lease calls on PPL to keep electricity flowing, no matter what. Thus, any damage caused by the disruption is PPL’s fault.
PPL said the lease only asks the company to pay for Blauch’s electricity and, after the fire knocked out power, the company helped by providing Blauch with a backup generator from an equipment rental company.
“Despite the catastrophe occurring within the plant related to the fire, Defendants, PPL, attempted to assist Plaintiff with its problem at the fish farm,” PPL said in court documents. In a counterclaim, PPL said that Susquehanna Aquaculture hasn’t paid all its rent or property taxes, as stipulated by the lease. The farmer denied those claims.
The farm’s rent is $31,500 a year, according to a copy of the lease filed in court. The rent was supposed to rise 5 percent a year after 1993, but Blauch claims PPL agreed to waive the increases because of his spending on maintenance and improvements. PPL denies there was any such agreement.
PPL declined to comment on the litigation, as did Blauch’s lawyer, state Rep. Brett Feese, a Lycoming County Republican. Blauch said he sought a meeting with PPL officials after the fire, but that they told him he would have to sue. In November, he did.
The court documents filed by Blauch portray a series of frantic, fumbling efforts to restore power and save his fish on the night of the fire.
At around 6:10 p.m., Blauch saw that the power plant was aflame, according to his suit. He also discovered that his farm’s electric pumps were no longer delivering fresh, aerated water to his fish. He called the plant and got no answer.
Blauch called again 15 minutes later. No answer. By 7 p.m., the fish were still in good condition, though oxygen levels were low.
He then tried to enter the power plant but was refused entry. Guards also refused to relay a message to plant operators that the farm’s reduced water flow was slowly suffocating the fish, the suit claims.
A half-hour later, Blauch returned to find his fish still in satisfactory condition. He then followed emergency trucks through a rear gate at the plant and eventually found his way to the control room. He explained the situation at his farm and provided a cellular-phone number for plant personnel to reach him. He was told electricity would not be restored to the farm.
In court documents, PPL relates a different story of events in the control room. The company said it told Blauch power couldn’t be restored at that time, but it would be restored “at the earliest possible convenience.” PPL also said it had no evidence that Blauch called the plant and got no answer or that he was refused entry.
At 9:30 p.m., PPL sent a messenger to tell Blauch that a backup generator was on the way. At that point, the fish were “beginning to stress,” according to Blauch’s suit.
A truck carrying the generator arrived at 10:30 p.m. But, the truck foundered in mud outside the farm’s gate. At 11:30 p.m., another truck arrived to rescue the first truck. The generator was put in place. Workers then discovered that they hadn’t brought cables.
PPL, in its court filing, said it thought the rental equipment company was responsible for providing the cables.
At 1 a.m. Sunday morning, the generator was finally hooked up. But the damage had been done. More than 118,000 bass died. Nearly 12,000 more fish died over the next three months from “lethal stress,” according to Blauch’s suit.
Blauch, who lives in Hampden Township, Cumberland County, would like to stay on his farm after 2008 and build it into a $2-million-a-year operation. He hoped the suit against his landlord wouldn’t hurt his chances.
“My life is all here,” he said.